Link between Hamas, al-Qaida feared

Palestinian group's fight has been Israel, not U.S.

August 25, 2004|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

From its legions of suicide bombers to its charity health clinics, Hamas has become the leading symbol of virulent Palestinian resistance to Israel. But all along, the organization's leaders have been adamant that they intend only to fight a one-front war, limiting casualties to Israel and the occupied territories even while seeking money and support worldwide.

That's why an alleged Hamas reconnaissance of Maryland's Bay Bridge has set off alarms among U.S. counterterrorism investigators. Although the videotaping of the bridge may turn out to be vacation footage from a family beach trip, authorities are treating the tape in the worst possible light - as a potential link between Hamas and al-Qaida, which has its sights set on death and destruction in the United States.

"There is a tremendous fear that this is the wave of the future, this cross-pollination at the field level by working for other groups, either in reconnaissance or in operations, because they have a very large network in the United States," said Steven Emerson, author of American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us.

The man at the center of these worries, Ismail Selim Elbarasse of Annandale, Va., has not been charged with a crime; neither have authorities cited any Hamas links more recent than 1993, when, according to the FBI, Elbarasse attended a meeting in Philadelphia with several top leaders and activists. He also controlled bank accounts at that time that received substantial transfers of Hamas money.

But his arrest Friday after crossing the Bay Bridge - when Maryland Transit Authority police saw his wife shooting footage of both spans as the family returned from an apparent vacation - occurred the same day he was named as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in federal indictments unsealed in Chicago. The grand jury charged a Hamas leader and two activists with using U.S. bank accounts to launder millions of dollars on behalf of the organization.

Elbarasse had also been jailed for civil contempt in 1998, after refusing to testify before a federal grand jury in New York.

Hamas backers closer to the action in the Middle East, such as Ghazi Hamad, editor of a pro-Hamas newspaper in Gaza, see recent U.S. legal actions as "part of the war against Hamas," while contending that the organization has no desire to pick a fight with America.

"They don't want to create fronts all over the world," Hamad said. "Despite the role of the United States, we focus our struggle inside the Palestinian territories, not outside."

Even Hamas' most critical observers in Israel tend to at least partly agree with that assessment.

"Hamas formally does not engage, and does not intend to engage, in a terrorist attack on American soil," said Boaz Ganor, executive director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, in Herzliya. "But I think it is not inconceivable that Hamas would change its strategies, and they would like to be ready for that option."

So perhaps, he said, it would not be so far-fetched if some activists took it upon themselves to survey possible targets.

Federal investigators make their case for this possibility by citing potential links to other organizations, such as al-Qaida. In the affidavits filed in support of search warrants for Elbarasse's home, the FBI referred to a past case in which Mohammed Saleh, a Jordanian emigre with previous Hamas connections, was convicted of providing gasoline for a foiled 1993 plot to blow up New York landmarks.

Although Hamas itself was never cited as part of the 1993 conspiracy, the affidavit said that "these conspirators from seemingly independent radical Islamic groups represented a hitherto unknown collaboration between jihadist groups."

The affidavit added, "In previous years, [al-Qaida] commanders and officials stationed in Western countries, including the United States, have recruited Hamas operatives and volunteers to carry out reconnaissance or serve as couriers. With the increased law enforcement pressure on [al-Qaida] since 9-11, there has been a renewed emphasis by [al-Qaida] to find confirmed jihadist supporters in the United States by trying to enlist proven members of other groups such as Hamas to make up for the vacuum on the field level."

But other sections of the affidavit seem far less sinister, such as when describing the contents of the videotape aside from the footage of the Bay Bridge:

"The tape contains some video of the Elbarasse family packing to depart on vacation, some footage while they were on vacation, and brief footage of the view of the bay from the Kent Narrows Bridge."

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